Sharing: An option on profit?
How sharing is subjugated to exchange

A boy and a girl sharing a drink
A boy and a girl sharing a drink | Photo (detail): public domain, source: Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division, digital ID cph.3c31892

If today people talk of “sharing”, it is mainly about modern forms such as the “sharing economy” or “online sharing”, or sometimes too about sharing as a goal of education. Far too rarely is it asked what is actually meant by the term. Wolfgang Sützl considers the reasons for this.

What is sharing? The question seems superfluous. Sharing is something so common and commonplace that for the most part we do not perceive it as a special act – as when, for example, we share the air or a language with others. In this way it slips under the threshold of perception and gives rise to the impression that there is nothing here to question or explore. The Canadian consumer researcher Russell Belk has noted that the widespread assumption that actions are motivated by self-interest forms one of the obstacles to understanding sharing. The assumption of self-interest makes it easy to see social relationships and communication as exchange relations: as giving and taking in reciprocal interest. Sharing, however, is not reciprocal, but rather something communal. Hence where people share, there is no market, no exchange value and no economic profit. Sharing, according to Belk, has therefore long been seen as not economically relevant. This privileging of exchange also has as a consequence that sharing itself is described as (often symbolic) exchange, which likewise has not been conducive to our understanding of sharing. 

When we share, we also share our selves 

Wolfgang Sützl Wolfgang Sützl | Foto: Julia Moss What then distinguishes sharing? Sharing creates communal relations, which are not exhausted in relations amongst mere individual persons, produced by common use of a resource. For sharing alters the “who” of the sharer. In sharing, one’s own existence is experienced as co-existence with others. Sharing renders the limits of the individual subject permeable. Belk therefore speaks of the “extended self” of the sharer: whenever we share, we also, or even chiefly, share our own self. Exchange, on the other hand, serves measurable reciprocal advantage and does not generate a co-existence amongst those engaged in exchange. On the contrary, in order to function as a market, exchange demands mere juxtaposition, which can at any time veer into conflict.

Sharing eludes calculation 

When we go beyond everyday shared existence and share food, shelter or information with others, we give originary sharing a cultural form, so that co-existence now includes a having-in-common. The goods so shared elude a profit and loss accounting and so cannot assume the character of a commodity. Historically, this was the case with the “commons” or “common land”, the shared natural resources, but it applies in principle to everything shared. Sharing thus constitutes a limit to exchange and also a limit to an economy oriented to growth.
Baudrillard’s concept of the “impossible exchange”, like Bataille’s theory of extravagance and the “accursed part” before it, were attempts to describe this limit. But both theories were still too much products of the previously mentioned assumption about exchange, surviving in Marxism and structuralism, that they could recognize in the end of exchange the beginning of sharing.
Eluding the code of economic exchange, sharing can thus alone be accounted for as a missed opportunity for growth, as a lost business opportunity, an option on loss. An economy that is committed to growth, whatever the cost, must therefore bank on business models that hamper sharing, and in areas where sharing prevails, introduce the logic of exchange: in communication, language, knowledge, art and intimacy.
After the spread of digital media in the 1990s, campaigns for digital rights management and pre-digital copyright models attempted to limit the burgeoning of sharing on the Internet. Without lasting success. Much more efficacious, since the introduction of Web 2.0, have been the sharing economy and social media sharing: instead of preventing sharing, they promote it and draw capital from it. They more or less declare Baudrillard’s impossible exchange to be possible by creating platforms for sharing that are subject to the principle of exchange. The commercial stroke of genius behind the sharing economy consists in making a robust business model out of a characteristic human trait. Sharing is then no longer the limit of exchange, but rather a frontier, an ever-to-be-conquered threshold that promises new opportunities for growth.


Sharing on social networking platforms, with its countless and sophisticated techniques of sharing information, also attempts to make the co-existence of sharing into the juxtaposition and competition of exchange. In reality the calls to participate in social networking are invitations to form social relationships as exchange relations: relationships that generate the appearance of sharing but in fact foster competitive relations. The rivalry for attention in the form of likes, re-tweets and comments leads to a corresponding pressure and to the frequently cited flood of cat videos and wedding photos on, for instance, Facebook. For the platform operator it is not about content but customer engagement, which generates an information added value independent of the kind or quality of the information shared. The co-existence inherent in sharing becomes an affective or cognitive service. This “pseudo-sharing” (Belk) does not give rise, as might be supposed, to caricatures of isolated individuals, single-mindedly pursuing their own goals. On the contrary, it gradually constitutes a form of “We” that has lost all sense, and so recognition, of purposes and responsibility. In this connection Byung-Chul Han has spoken of a “digital swarm”. The meaning of shared being, according to Jean-Luc Nancy, is ultimately that it is possible only where exchange ends and sharing begins. For citizens. therefore, sharing is a prerequisite for a political discourse that makes possible pluralistic decision-making. Without sharing, there is no pluralism but only political mono-cultures. Last but not least, the sharing of knowledge is also a prerequisite for the critique of exchange itself, especially the universalization of its scope in neo-liberalism. 

Without sharing, it won’t work 

What happens when these possibilities are lacking because they themselves have become objects of exchange has been explained by the American political scientist Wendy Brown: respect and responsibility are then easily converted into the small change of political correctness, meaning is transformed into fundamentalist ideology, and being a citizen into human capital.
People share, however, not merely because they do not want to or cannot exchange, but because they are communal beings. That we try to teach children to share, reminds us of this fact. A common understanding – for instance, one about what constitutes exchange, how it takes place, what rules apply to it – can only be a shared understanding: those engaged in the exchange must share the perception of their action if the exchange is to be a success.
Sharing therefore is not about to die out among Internet users, and certainly not when you consider that the Internet emerged from the sharing of computing capacity and data, and that file sharing is not invariably associated with piracy. The Net still provides a technical infrastructure that splendidly enables sharing. Sharing cannot be prevented, but it can of course be commercialized, if at a high social cost. As important as sharing is, it remains an unspectacular everyday affair, which can limit, but not replace, exchange. Were it to attempt such a substitution, sharing itself would then become an object of exchange.